- The Domestic Side of Modernism
In Mrs. Dalloway (1925) Peter Walsh returns to London to obtain a divorce on behalf of his fiancée, the wife of a Major in the Indian Army. As he walks through the city on a June day in 1923, he ponders the changes since he left: “Newspapers seemed different. Now, for instance, there was a man writing quite openly in one of the respectable weeklies about water-closets. That you couldn’t have done ten years ago—written quite openly about water-closets in a respectable weekly” (Woolf 54). Divorce and toilets might not seem to have much in common; however, in early twentieth-century England, a cultural shift made it possible to speak openly about both. These intimate facts of our houses and our families—and a culture of talking about them—may be as important a hallmark of the transition from Victorian to modern culture as any. And while neither Victoria Rosner nor Davida Pines cites this moment from Mrs. Dalloway, it is a touchstone for both their arguments. [End Page 827]
Early modernism announced its break with the past in loud, antidomestic, and often masculine ways. The first critics of modernism, too, hailed the new literature as a bold protest against the strictures of Victorian domesticity. These new books on modernism and domesticity show how much the study of modernism has changed in the past fifty years. Gone are the days in which modernism referred to the men of 1922. But is this turn to analyze marriage and the domestic sphere a sign of the triumph of feminism? Or is it simply an instance of femininity? Is our continued association of women with the domestic a sign of a failure of the more radical feminist elements of the modernist project? Neither of these books has an explicitly feminist thrust; both, however, might have benefited from deeper reading in feminist literary criticism. For example, Rosner writes, “Women fit uneasily into the role of the flaneur” (147), which is true enough, but a little flat without citations to any of the considerable feminist scholarship on female flanerie by Rita Felski, Rachel Bowlby, Deborah Parsons, and others, all of whom alert us to the ways women tried to reclaim city spaces for themselves. Neither study has the exuberance of Carolyn Heilbrun’s utopian vision of Bloomsbury and androgyny found a generation ago in Toward a Recognition of Androgyny or the sweet and hopeful romance of Maria DiBattista’s First Love. For the postfeminist authors under review here, the recovery projects of the feminists of a generation or two ago—the genealogies of Bonnie Kime Scott, the feminist advocacy of Heilbrun, and even the highly theorized contexts of Felski—are deep background: assumed but not much cited or substantially engaged. Nonetheless, both Rosner and Pines add much to the conversation. Their work, taken alongside that on gender and modernism from the early 1990s, suggests a powerful new avenue for research, one that these books, in their very different ways, outline but do not exhaust.
There is a lot to be said about marriage and modernism: the masculine modernism that dominated the headlines and the early decades of criticism focused on heroism over housework—to borrow Christopher Reed’s terminology from his outstanding (and beautiful) book, Bloomsbury Rooms. Unfortunately, Pines’s The Marriage Paradox does not interest itself in unconventional marriages or in alternatives to marriage, and this choice insures that it cannot be as good a book as it might have been. Through readings of James, Ford, Lawrence, Larsen, Hurston, and Woolf, Pines discovers that the very novels that apparently critique marriage “paradoxically reinforce the marital norm” (3). As is often the case with explaining a paradox: the paradox itself sounds energetic and exciting, but the explanation turns out to be not so surprising after all. In subtitling her book “the cultural imperative to marry” Pines confines her study to those authors [End...